By David Sloan
Chef Stella Parks probably didn’t know she was cooking up controversy when she claimed Key lime pie was inspired by a 1931 Borden Company recipe published from their New York test kitchen. A 1996 article in the Los Angeles Times put forth the very same theory, but residents of the Keys didn’t pay any mind to the idea back then, because they simply knew it was wrong. Today the media loves a good controversy, so logic be damned, right?
Not any more. Put on your thinking caps and consider these sweet treats of logic as we dive deep into “The Key Lime Pie Hole.”
Foods evolve. Claiming a dessert didn’t exist until it had a published recipe to validate it is pretzel logic. In the case of Key lime pie, we have good reasons to believe it started in the late 1800s with sponge fishermen (called “hookers”) pouring sweetened condensed milk on stale Cuban bread in a coffee mug, stirring in a bird egg and topping it with lime juice.
Limes and condensed milk were staples of nutrition at sea, so there was nothing ground-breaking about this creation, and recording the recipe probably didn’t even cross the hookers’ minds. Consider, too, that making a Key lime pie as the fishermen did involved so few ingredients and such a simple process, that it would be the equivalent complexity of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich today. No fancy recipe required.
But let’s pretend for a moment that there was a secret society of hookers who shared recipes over tea and submitted them to the newspaper’s society editor for publication. Chances are those recipes were destroyed. People assume newspapers are archived in temperature controlled caves and library vaults, but the fact is, most of Key West’s newspapers were in a backroom on Greene Street, stacked chronologically when flood waters started to rise. Every paper stacked below the mid-1920s was wiped out, along with any local pie recipes that might have been in them. It was a terrible loss, yet I don’t believe a single Key lime pie recipe fell victim.
Key lime pie started off as a working-class food. The society ladies may have served it to their kids and enjoyed it behind closed doors, but there is not a chance in hell they would serve a hooker’s dish to dinner guests or brag about it as their creation in a newspaper or Woman’s Club Cookbook. Our dear Key lime pie had some maturing to do before she was ready for prime time, and it would take Key lime pie-oneers like Aunt Sally, Fern Butters and a cast of Key lime characters to evolve the pie to the level where it is today.
It should also be noted that what we call a “Key lime pie” today was simply called a “lime pie” before people started marketing them. “Lime Pie” appears on a Key West menu printed in a local paper as early as 1926, the same year accounts show the pie was being served in Key Largo. Sorry, New York.
In our next column we will go a little further down The Key Lime Pie Hole and spend some time with one of the ladies credited with inventing Key lime pie in the late 1800s. Roll out the red carpet for “Aunt Sally.”
Until then, enjoy a slice of Key lime pie no matter where in the world you are. It makes a delicious treat in New York, but it was born right here in the fabulous Florida Keys, and we are happy to share.